Digital Inequality - The Next Great Divide PPF WC 9 Aug 2020
The lockdown due to Covid19, has changed our way of life. Constraints on in-person contact, the elimination of large gatherings and conferences has amongst others, changed how we work, interact and learn. It also glaringly exposed, how the spatial, economic and social inequalities which were characteristic features of the apartheid period have persisted in post-apartheid South Africa.
Moving to communicating online has highlighted the digital divide or inequalities. This can be defined as any uneven distribution in the access to, use of,
or impact of information and communications technologies between any number of distinct groups, which can be defined based on social, geographical, or
geopolitical criteria, or otherwise. Studies have found that digital inequalities are associated with race, class, gender and other inequalities and can
reinforce existing social inequalities and even exacerbate them because they carry over pre-existing differences in human capital into online settings.
The National Planning Commission (NPC) released its 107 paged Draft Paper, Digital Futures: South Africa’s Readiness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution for public comment on the 6 July 2020. Deadline for comments ended on 27 July, however, the public may still comment up until the 15 August 2020. The Paper confirms that technology will not be equitably shared without significant policy interventions and that in 2017, just over half (51%) of the South African population had access to the Internet. Access is linked to affordability, because lower prices lead to greater access and use.
The South African National Broadband Policy (SA Connect) was developed in 2012, to meet the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP) by laying the groundwork for an integrated supply-side and demand-side strategy to meet the NDP's goals of a “… dynamic and connected information society and a vibrant knowledge economy that is more inclusive and prosperous' by 2030”. The Paper points out that the SA Connect Strategy, has been impeded by amongst other: lack of continuity in leadership (changing of Ministers and splitting of Department of Communication) which brought about the incapacitation in several administrations; state-owned enterprises (SOEs) was compromised by corruption, some were underfunded and could not compete, others were locked in litigation over responsibilities for spectrum and another was having intra-organisational litigation.
The Paper makes several recommendations; however, my view is that the recommendation that the Regulator must ensure that there is sufficient spectrum available in the necessary bands to support the shift from voice services to data services and the reduction in the cost of providing data services, must be prioritised. The Ministry of Communication and SOEs tasked with implementing these policies and laws, must be held accountable as much time has passed with very little progress and the digital inequality gap is growing, continuing to exclude the poor and rural communities.
Communities negatively impacted must rope in their community councillors and provincial political representatives to voice their frustrations. Particularly now, as Covid19 has forced citizens to move online, the huge costs of data and not sufficient bandwidth in certain areas, excludes them from participating in many activities taking place online. Perhaps social organisations should start making a case that digital inequality deserves a place alongside more traditional forms of inequality in order for it to receive the attention it deserves?